Meet Roger Black

These are big moments in magazine design: Esquire in the sixties, when George Lois creates a new iconic vocabulary of celebrities and politics (Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, for instance); New York in the late sixties and seventies, when Milton Glaser and Walter Bernard reengineer the architecture of a magazine page (sidebars, call-outs, subheads; type as graphic element); and Condé Nast, in the eighties, when, because of the power of design emperor Alexander Liberman, art directors become as important as editors.

And then there is Roger Black (“I’ve designed more magazines than you’ll ever read,” he has been known to say). The last thing you would ever do, or that he would ever want you to do, is associate him with one moment or magazine, no matter how significant or momentous. Instead, the goal he seems to have set for himself is to design, practically speaking, all magazines. And, to a large degree, he has succeeded – certainly he has designed more magazines than anybody else; he may also have made more money from magazines than any nonowner. This is not so much about homogenization, necessarily, as it is about, perhaps, compatibility. We (the general reader) expect magazines to look the way Roger makes them look. Roger has created a standard. Using a Macintosh, he has become the Windows of print.

Roger-watchers, who include other designers, as well as former clients, employees, and protégés (in fact, there is a Website devoted to Roger-watching), would not disagree very much with this assessment – but it would make them laugh anyway. This is strictly laughing with and not at. What’s funny is that year after year, magazine after magazine, doing pretty much exactly as he pleases, in some seemingly effortless, amazingly overpriced fashion, he somehow keeps everyone happy – many even find him endearing.

Most recently, the National Enquirer, the Star, and the Globe’s new owners – a buyout firm undoubtedly thinking of a tabloid IPO – have hired him. Roger’s redesigning the tabs seems way off. Roger’s stock-in-trade is fealty to classic, elegant typographical standards – serif type and Oxford rules – while a sensationalist tabloid’s reason for existing involves pretty much an opposite philosophy about type (the more vulgar the better) and taste. Obviously though, even the tabloids, forced to compete with the tabloidization of the general media, must have sensed that there is something unavoidable or inevitable about Roger.

I have hired Roger, too – more than once. In each instance, I hired Roger even though it was obvious – it is part of Roger’s charm that everything is obvious – that Roger himself devotes very little time to any one project he takes on (once, in a rare working meeting I had with Roger, he spent a few minutes looking carefully at a prototype and then made his single and singular contribution to the project: “Lose the Bodoni”) and that his junior and junior-junior designers will do the job. So why do we (that is, virtually everyone who has a magazine to design and who is able and willing to afford him) hire Roger if we don’t actually get Roger himself, and if, what’s more, he’ll make our magazine (or newspaper or Website) look like everyone else’s?

“Roger stages an office Christmas party and explains that he would like everyone to leave the building carrying a component part of one of his many Macintosh workstations.”

What is the attraction? What is the compulsion to hire Roger?

Roger has designed or redesigned Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, McCall’s, The New Republic, Fast Company, Reader’s Digest, Foreign Affairs, Advertising Age, Esquire, and now the National Enquirer (to name just a brief sampling). His new, parallel Web career goes from and to the U.S. Senate. The accomplishment and anomaly here is not just that he could fit his style to such contradictory enterprises but that he could get along with such disparate proprietors and corporations.

What this says about Roger, I’ve come to think, is that he has, not unendearingly, many character traits in common with the Claude Rains character Louis Renault, the police captain in Casablanca who is able to prosper with Free French and Germans alike – that is, a high level of irony and an innate sense of the minimum obeisance his many patrons demand. “He is,” according to one editor, “the greatest operator in New York today.” Which is saying something. (Indeed, you suspect you might one day discover that he is, underneath his pleasantly cynical exterior, like Louis, a decent fellow – even a dedicated designer.)

What Roger’s vast success says about the people who hire him is more complex. In some sense, the very thing that is annoying about Roger when you’re paying him (that he is off in Milan at the Principessa or in Paris at the Ritz) is what you value him for, too: He’s taken the art out of art director. He is the antidote to Fabien Baron and Tibor Kalman and Neville Brody – the temperamental and unpredictable designers. The fact that Roger himself is not there doing the job you’re paying him for is, in some ways, a relief; you get the name without the ego.

At the same time you would never, ever consider Roger a hack. Quite the opposite. Hacks deliver lesser, cheaper versions. Roger delivers Roger – which is an extremely expensive product. What he does (he cleans up what is dirty, makes the old better-than-new, “makes everything crystalline,” says the design writer Steven Heller), whether you like it or not, is as branded as, say, a Philip Johnson building. And like Johnson, Roger, smartly, puts the emphasis on his imprimatur rather than, strictly speaking, his creation – after all, design can be erased, whereas the designer can’t.

Indeed, one of Roger’s favorite topics is his own career (in hindsight, I realize, this is just about all he talks about):

He grew up in West Texas; went to the University of Chicago in the sixties; got involved in underground publications – becoming a designer, he says, by default rather than training (again, the effortlessness). He did a brief stint at a Texas ad agency (oddly, but importantly, he is contemptuous of commercial corporate design), went out to Los Angeles and another underground newspaper, and then to Rolling Stone, where he became one of the principal creators of the Rolling Stone look – taking the underground mainstream. He emerged from the Rolling Stone culture as a top art director and joined first New York, then the New York Times, and then Newsweek. In the mid-eighties, leaving Newsweek, he embraced the Macintosh. The advent of the Mac is a pivotal moment in design – roughly equivalent to the arrival of the spreadsheet in finance or sound in movies or the sitcom in comedy. PhotoShop and Quark became the job. Every designer had to relearn the trade. Roger, the first to relearn, became the most expert, and the most passionate (and, at least to other designers, the most condescending).

Then, with his Rolling Stone colleague Terry McDonell – at Rolling Stone, Black and McDonell launched Outside – Roger created Smart, the first all-desktop-published magazine, backed by Owen Lipstein, the publishing entrepreneur, who was shortly to enter roiled financial waters. In Lipstein’s telling, this roiling is the result of Smart’s huge financial drain. But no matter.

There is a famous moment in the annals of design when, the Lipstein empire facing bankruptcy in late 1990, the landlord holding Lipstein’s assets (including computers) hostage, Roger stages an office Christmas party. Toward midnight, Roger mounts a desk and explains that he would like everyone to leave the building carrying a festively decorated shopping bag in which will be a found not a gift but a component part of one of his many Macintosh workstations. Outside, cars are waiting to transport Roger Black, Inc., to new offices at the Hearst Corporation, where McDonell has become Esquire’s editor-in-chief.

At this moment, Roger arrives where he was obviously meant to be. Claeys Bahrenburg, the head of Hearst Magazines, is, along with McDonell, a crony from Rolling Stone. What’s more, Will Hearst, the most prominently placed member of the younger Hearst generation, is also a Rolling Stone alum and a Black chum. Roger’s atelier moves into space at Esquire’s offices; Roger draws a monthly consulting retainer as the design director at Esquire and as the grand design consultant to the Hearst company. The idea is that Roger will become a kind of Alexander Liberman at Hearst, except that Roger will be free to work, from his Hearst offices, on his many other non-Hearst projects and assignments.

While on the Hearst premises and a Hearst retainer, Roger and his aide-de-camp, Michael Goff, create and raise the financing for Out magazine (Roger himself, in his mid-forties and previously married, comes out during this period); at the same time, he is operating an office in Milan; designing newspapers in cities around the world; co-partnering at the Font Bureau, a digital-type house (a Roger design almost always involves a new typeface that is licensed from the Font Bureau); and launching Interactive Bureau, his Web-design agency. (The Web, desperately seeking to look real, mainstream, official, is ideally suited to the Roger treatment.) Under McDonell and Black’s stewardship, Esquire hits the skids. But no matter. After McDonell is removed from Esquire and Bahrenburg booted from Hearst, Roger joins Will Hearst at TCI-backed @Home. In due time, @Home goes public in a whopping IPO. This month, numerous magazines and Websites later, Interactive Bureau, as well as various other parts of the far-flung Black empire, merges with, a public company controlled by advertising-agency aggregator Snyder Communications.

Amid these pyrotechnics of modern business – alliances, partnerships, consulting deals, equity arrangements, start-ups, ever-expanding employee rosters – there is Roger, detached, cool, virtual, rich, ever more elusive, ever more in demand (almost all his clients end up calling him, mostly with affection, Roger the Dodger). Roger, in other words, attains what in the Internet business is called scalability. There are just no limits to how pervasive he can be.

But the question still isn’t answered: How does he do it? Or, as important, how does he make it look so easy?

“Roger wrote me a letter the day we closed,” says the new tabloid czar David Pecker, formerly head of Hachette Filipacchi. “He said we had a real opportunity to make history together. Our properties, he said, are a part of American pop culture. The National Enquirer is an American icon. He came out to a sales meeting and explained his vision to people who have spent their whole careers on tabloids, people who don’t know who Roger Black is. He won them over in the first meeting. He inspired them.”

It makes sense, sort of. While it’s a stretch to call the National Enquirer an American icon – it’s only iconography in the camp sense – hiring Roger is aspirational. A Roger design helps you deal with your insecurities (The New Republic and Foreign Affairs have insecurities perhaps not so different from the National Enquirer’s). Roger moves you toward where you want to be. At the front of the newsstand. At a power lunch. At the heart of pop culture. And, of course, wherever it is that IPOs take place. This is convergence. A Roger design makes you look like money – which is not a design statement you’ll ever need to explain to anybody. Then, too, when you hire Roger, at least on those occasions when you get to see him, you’ll enjoy him – “just the nicest guy,” says Pecker, “and so brilliant.”

With Roger, almost everyone feels it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


Meet Roger Black